It is Christmas at Belinda and Neville’s house and they have invited their family and a couple of friends for a traditional Christmas celebration. The guests include: Neville’s exhausted sister Phyllis; her husband Bernard, a doctor whose annual puppet shows are the stuff of legend and terror to both young and old alike; Neville’s friend Eddie and his pregnant wife Pattie; uncle Harvey, a slightly senile retired security guard and television-addict; Belinda’s unmarried sister, Rachel; Clive, a writer and friend of Rachel. Like every family Christmas, tensions are running high. Belinda and Neville’s marriage seems to be on the rocks, Phyllis is creating havoc in the kitchen by insisting on cooking the entire Christmas Eve dinner single-handed, Harvey is monopolizing the TV, Pattie is blaming Neville for not having promoted her husband and Rachel hasn’t had sex in months.
Clive’s train is late, is missed at the station by Rachel, and he is instead welcomed by Belinda, who is immediately attracted to him. Harvey, as a result of a misunderstanding, takes an immediate dislike to Clive, believing him to be a homosexual and prospective thief. Clive falls for the frustrated Belinda after Rachel tells him she is looking for no more than friendship. He and Belinda attempt to fulfill their passions beneath the Christmas tree, but are discovered when they set off the various electronic toys and lights beneath the tree in, initially, their lust and then their desperate attempts to turn everything off.
On Boxing Day, Clive arranges to leave as soon as he can. Meanwhile, rehearsals are taking place for Bernard’s puppet show The Three Little Pigs, all his efforts being undermined by Harvey. Bernard eventually snaps and tirades against Harvey. Very early the following morning, Clive, in the process of leaving, is intercepted by Harvey who believes he is a thief taking all the presents. Harvey promptly shoots Clive, who is pronounced dead by the ineffectual Bernard. The ‘corpse’ promptly lets out a moan and calls for Belinda, rather than Rachel. He is taken to hospital and Belinda and Neville are left together, Neville choosing to ignore all that has happened. Merry Christmas, Everyone!
Neville Bunker – Neil Stuke
Belinda, his wife – Catherine Tate
Phyllis, his sister – Jenna Russell
Bernard, her husband – Mark Gatiss
Rachel, Belinda’s sister – Nicola Walker
Harvey, Neville’s uncle – David Troughton
Eddie – Marc Wooton
Pattie, his wife – Katherine Parkinson
Clive – Oliver Chris
Written by – Alan Ayckbourn
Director – Marianne Elliott
Designer – Rae Smith
Lighting- Bruno Poet
Music – Stephen Warbeck
I actually wanted to go and see Cinderella, it being my birthday and all. You know, birthdays – the one time of the year when people actually ask you what you would like to see. But instead, Him Indoors calmly announced that he’d bought tickets for Season’s Greetings instead. So, feeling old and crotchety, I was dragged off through the snow and ice to see a play by a writer whose work I find unremittingly grim (not for nothing was the working title of this play In the Bleak Midwinter) and who, in my blinkered view, runs Tennessee Williams and Harold Pinter a close third for the title of “Dirge master”. In fact, halfway down the stairs at the National afterwards, I turned to Him Indoors and said “Do you think people will come and see this just because Catherine Tate’s in it?” Him Indoors (Left Ear Finalist, World Ear Wax Championships) didn’t hear me and instead I got an answer from the bloke going down the stairs in front of me, who turned and said “Why else would you come and see it?” Pretty good question, actually. Several possible responses flashed through my mind, including “Oh, someone’s obviously a big fan”, “Some of us didn’t get given the choice” and “What do you think you look like in that jacket?” but the one that popped out of my mouth was “Certainly not to go home afterwards feeling jolly, that’s for sure”. Because by ‘eck (as they say in Scarborough), not far under the glittery surface of Season’s Greetings there is a dreadfully bleak story. To use a meteorological metaphor, its just like a patch of black ice lurking underneath the pretty dusting of snow onto which you are about to plant your boot. And it’s a story that we can all relate to – The Awful Christmas. Which I suppose is why on the surface, this play is very funny, because to a greater or lesser extent, we’ve all been there. We can all tell stories, hilarious in retrospect, about The Christmas From Hell (in fact, to get things going, I want everyone who reads this review to leave a comment on the subject of “The Worst Christmas Present I Ever Received” or, if you really want to examine your conscience,” The Worst Christmas Present I Ever Gave”).
Once again, the National’s “Build an Entire House On Stage” team had been hard at work, faithfully recreating the ground and first floors (as well as tiny attic) of an enormous “We’re loaded and we want you to know it” home, yet the first floor and attic went almost entirely unused. The action of the play takes place exclusively on the ground floor, but I’m sure that there were directorial possibilities for the rest of the house – I bet you, dear Reader, have had an “Awkward Encounter on the Landing” at one point in your life that you would like to tell us about, or even an “I’ve Tapped Quietly On the Wrong Bedroom Door” moment. (names will be changed to protect the guilty, if necessary). There were some excellent performances, and a few quite ropey ones. I thought that Catherine Tate was remarkably restrained in the role of Belinda compared to how she might possibly have played the part – there was a lot less flailing around and mugging than I expected, and I have to say that I was impressed by her obvious talent for physical comedy, even though you all know that I absolutely loathe and detest farce. What did impress me was that at one point her character gets the line “I’m not bothered” and she didn’t do what everyone in the audience was expecting her to do. I enjoyed Jenna Russell’s Phyllis and Mark Gatiss’s Bernard immensely, but thought very little of Katherine Parkinson’s Pattie, mainly because I couldn’t hear very much of what she said, but also because I thought the way she moved bore little resemblance to how a heavily pregnant woman would actually do so. Costumes were OK on the whole, but I thought that they didn’t show nearly enough of the 80’s fashion excess that we all now find so excruciating. We all laughed at the bits in the script that we could relate to, but most of the audience would have laughed so much harder if they’d been given the chance to cringe in shamed recognition of jogging tops with shoulder pads in or novelty legwarmers (you know who you are!). Yes, there was a Snowman Jumper that bore a remarkable resemblance to one in Bennetton that I pined for as a young fashion victim but (thankfully in retrospect) never got, but one item of comedy knitwear does not an 80’s farce make. More comedy knitwear please!
Of course, the biggest laughs come from recognition and everyone practically piddled themselves when the line “Snow never comes at the right time, does it?” was delivered. It’s a crying shame that nobody piddled themselves over the Managing Director of Southeastern Trains. Because that really WOULD have been funny.
What the critics thought:
(This was a preview performance, pro reviews in a week or so)